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Zoned For Kids

Hard-pressed Humboldt preschools may soon find some relief

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Last Wednesday, Hilary Mosher, director of the Strongbridge Montessori School in McKinleyville, tried to explain to her students the bind their school is in. The building she's been operating out of for the past two years was sold recently and she has until to the end of February to relocate.

Mosher sat on a short wooden stool in a bright yellow frock. The white-haired preschool teacher bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Maria Montessori, the woman who created the innovative pedagogy Mosher uses day in and day out.

There were unusually few students in class that day due to what Mosher described as an "epidemic of sickness." But the four who were there (out of a total enrollment of 20) sat next to one another at the edge of a blue circle taped onto the carpet. Sometimes they squirmed out of the lotus position Mosher had instructed them to sit in, but for the most part they listened attentively as their teacher spoke.

"We're having a little trouble about having to move out," she explained in a soft but authoritative voice. "Not enough preschools," she said and the students nodded as though they understood perfectly.

But how could they? The difficulties that Mosher and other early childhood educators in the county face when it comes to finding a place to open a school, or relocate an existing one, are not what you'd expect. It is not David versus Goliath. The system is not horribly broken. And there is no one readily available in the county government to point fingers at. In Mosher's case, some of the difficulties she's had to overcome are partially her own fault.

It is a matter of complicated logistics. At the heart of the problem is the county's general plan, which, as it stands, requires early childhood educators to apply for a conditional use permit in order to operate schools in residential zones. Although that sounds pretty innocuous, the process can be time-consuming and costly — and many say it's an unnecessary burden to foist on educators who are already overworked and underpaid.

But it may not be that way forever, especially if the Work-Life Alliance, a collaborative group that includes childcare advocates and employer organizations, is successful in its efforts to amend the general plan. A year from now, it may be significantly easier for early childhood educators to start up shop. The changes the Work-Life Alliance is proposing would enable small child care centers and preschools (serving up to 15 students) to be principally permitted in residential zones. In short, no more conditional use permits. The future neighbors of these childcare centers might not be so happy about that, but early childhood educators are giddy.

Still, Mosher isn't holding her breath.

It's time to take an "injury inventory," she told her four students who dutifully showed her the bumps and bruises they had acquired over the past week.

"All my booboos goed away," one little girl said. "Went away," Mosher corrected.

Unfortunately for Mosher, her problems will require more than a band-aid to fix. It will take far longer than she and her preschool have for the general plan to be updated.

Mosher has hada rocky ride getting her Montessori preschool up and running. In April 2005, she signed a one-year lease for a space in the Murray Road Community Church, but a couple of months after signing, the fire marshal told her she'd have to add a rear fire exit, even though, according to Mosher, another childcare facility had been there for a decade prior to her arrival. The installation was too expensive, which meant Mosher was back to square one. After months of scouring, she found the former Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall on Hayes Road, where she's been since November 2005.

By then, Mosher was chomping at the bit to open up and she started operating her preschool in the former church without getting the required conditional use permit. She insists that the County Planning Division told her she didn't need a permit because in its former life as a church the building had both children and car traffic. But the county fined her anyway and required her to apply for the special permit in order to continue operating the school.

Mosher figures that, all told, she's paid about $7,000 to the county to keep the school running. Not to mention the countless hours spent appealing the fines and sorting things out with the county and her neighbors, a handful of whom vociferously opposed the preschool because of the increased car traffic they feared it would generate.

In the end, Mosher's victory seems pyrrhic, considering that by March she'll have to move again. When the property went up for sale at the end of last year, Mosher placed a bid on it, but it wasn't enough. The new buyers are unwilling to allow her to stay, she says, even if it's just long enough for her to find a new location.

Mosher's options are limited. It's hard for her to rent a house, she says, because people aren't too keen on having 15 kids running around on their carpets, no matter how qualified the teacher is. Mosher says she could simply not tell the landlord her plans to start a preschool — her right as a California renter — but she's afraid of bad karma. Besides, securing a location would only be the first step; after that, she'd have to go back to square one and get a permit from the county. She says the county is sending her a pretty clear message: "Go rent a home, be duplicitous, lie, be a baby sitter and live just above the poverty level."

And that's bad news for everyone, according to Mosher, because young families who already have their kids enrolled at Strongbridge will be out on the street and new families will be less inclined to move to the North Coast if there aren't quality preschools like hers.

"I think that's an absolute crime," Cathie Shermer, whose son Ian goes to Strongbridge, said last week from her home. "There are so many people who would be absolutely stuck without the school."

Shermer considers herself among them, but she admits she's in a better position than most parents. Shermer is an independent studies teacher — she advises parents on how to more effectively home school their children. If Strongbridge closes down, she says she'll teach her kids herself using the Montessori techniques she's learned. Nonetheless, she'd rather leave that responsibility to an expert like Mosher. She says her son has "had absolutely remarkable results" working with Mosher.

But parents who have 9-5 jobs would be "really stuck," Shermer said. "They would have to put their child in a more play-based situation and that would be very sad."

In 2004,First 5Humboldt and the National Economic Development and Law Center came out with a report, "The Economic Impact of the Child Care Industry in Humboldt County," which argued that more quality child care options (including preschools like Mosher's) are needed to improve the local economy.

The report identified the child care industry as a "vital" component of the county's economy in at least three ways. For one, it helps employers attract and retain employees. It also generates revenues in its own right. In 2004 the industry generated $22.5 million annually. (By way of comparison, the real estate industry generated about twice that amount.) Finally, it helps ensure a vibrant economy in the future by preparing children at a young age to succeed. The report cited a 2001 study that found that children who participate in quality early childhood education are less likely to drop out of high school, be in special education, repeat a grade or be arrested as juveniles.

But child care, according to the report, isn't receiving the attention it deserves. In 2004, child care providers were the largest group of self-employed individuals in Humboldt County and represented a significant portion of the county's small businesses. Nonetheless, the median hourly wage of a child care center teacher according to a 2001 survey was $7.75, only 35 percent reported that they received health benefits and almost 60 percent earned a poverty level wage for a single parent with two dependents. Moreover, Humboldt's lack of quality child care is an even starker problem in rural and outlying areas, like McKinleyville, where Mosher is.

Mosher says she makes about $4.50 an hour and has neither medical nor dental insurance.

Fast forward to 2008 and things haven't changed much, says First 5 Humboldt Executive Director Wendy Rowan. "The problem with preschool is that we don't have a funding stream for it," she said last week from her office.

Had Californians passed proposition 82 in 2006, which would have raised taxes on individuals earning over $400,000 annually and provided $2.1 billion to create universal preschool, things would be different — at least there'd be money in the bank for early childhood educators. However, Rowan points out, there still wouldn't be an adequate workforce in the county.

A lack of money and qualified professionals isn't the only constraint on the child care industry.

"Our zoning ordinance needs to have some changes," Rowan said. "We're hoping that those changes will occur. We're hoping that some general plan amendments can be made to make it easier for people to open more preschools."

It turns out that Mosher's situation isn't unique: "Unfortunately Hilary is not alone," Rowan said. "There are other people who have to struggle trying to open things."

Robin Renshaw has run the Mad River Montessori for 28 years now and has a waiting list of over 150 kids. Parents have to sign their children up when they're still in utero and that doesn't even assure them a place.

"There aren't enough quality preschools for middle-income families," Renshaw said last week from her school after all her students had gone home.

One of the reasons for that, Renshaw said, is that "the permitting process is really hard." Another problem is that, in residential zones, it tends to be the neighbors who put up the biggest fight.

Renshaw experienced just this sort of NIMBYism a few years back when she tried to expand her preschool across the street from the Jacoby Creek School in Arcata. One of her student's parents offered her a space to use for the expansion, but the neighbors stopped the project dead in its tracks.

There is an obvious need for Renshaw to grow, but she's found it very difficult to do so. "Other than churches, what kinds of space are really amenable? There really aren't any," she said.

And even though she's in such high demand, her story is all too similar to that of other early childhood educators in the county. "Very recently I started getting a paycheck with a comma," she explained with a laugh.

County SupervisorJill Geist recognizes that the situation is not easy for early childhood educators.

"Going through the conditional use permit process can be onerous and time-consuming," she said from her office last week. And "there's a recognition that daycares are pretty thin-margined businesses."

Geist, herself, is no stranger to starting a school. She's a founding member of the Coastal Grove Charter School in Arcata. She said the most critical thing for getting the school going was to establish a strong relationship with the neighbors and to have a willing and supportive property owner.

As for Mosher's situation, Geist described it as "incredibly tragic." But she added that "the county has at every opportunity tried to work with her on these things."

Senior County Planner Michael Richardson agrees that the process for starting a preschool needs to be streamlined. He admits that it's difficult for early childhood educators to wear the hat of teacher and planner all at the same time.

"If an individual is trying to set up a preschool they're trained and geared towards kids," he said last week, "and for them to try to deal with building codes is not a good thing. They end up having to hire someone."

Which means more cost and more time spent before they can get down to the business of teaching. The process of applying for a conditional use permit can take between four to eight months, he said. In Mosher's case, that's too long to wait.

Still, Richardson is optimistic that the Work-Life Alliance's suggested changes to the general plan will eventually be adopted, but it won't happen for at least another year, he said. And even that's not a sure thing. When First 5 Humboldt released their report on the child care industry in 2004, Supervisor Geist said she expected the changes to be implemented a year from then.

On a brisk, clear day last week at a press conference held outside of the Humboldt County Office of Education, school administrators, members of the PTA and the president of the Eureka Teachers Association gathered in front of a bevy of shiny yellow school buses and explained the rough road ahead for California's education system if Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposed budget cuts are signed into law.

Bob Berkowitz, of the California School Boards Association, called the cuts an "assault on our kids' education" and a "criminal act." Dr. Garry Eagles, Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools, explained that the $4.8 billion cut translates locally to a $13 million reduction in funding. That's going to affect librarians, school transportation, classroom sizes and the number of teachers and textbooks in schools. Not to mention the fact that California already ranks 46 in the nation in terms of spending per student.

Before the press conference began, Eagles explained that the impact of the cuts will be felt particularly strongly in rural areas, which are blessed with fewer discretionary funds — unlike some urban school districts. Humboldt will have to dip deeper into its general fund, thus affecting core academics to an even greater extent. And school transportation, which will be hit hard according to Eagles, is of particular concern to residents in rural areas, where the distance between home and school is often much greater.

Proposition 98, which Californians voted into law in 1988, was designed to set a minimum annual funding level for K-12 schools and community colleges, but Schwarzenegger's proposed cuts include a suspension of prop 98. And that has educators worried that students might soon be receiving even less than the minimum when they should be getting more.

How will the proposed cuts affect early childhood education? Eagles said, "It clearly puts that farther on the back burner." It also sets a bad precedent for those who are hoping to one day have universal preschool in California. The budget cuts, if passed, would mean we'd be "going backward on the conversation," Eagles explained.

Mosher saysshe has one last chance for a seamless transition from her Hayes Road location to a new place, and it lies not in the hands of the county but rather with the Arcata Elementary School District, to whom she's applied to operate her preschool in the new Sunset School site, built expressly with early childhood education in mind. Mosher is impatient for news.

"Here we've got a preschool closing and there they've got an empty preschool," she said last week.

Timothy Parisi, superintendent for the district, explained last week that the district built the facility because it's aware that the need for more quality preschools in the area is real.

"Our board recognized that in the community and in the county there is a real need for preschool education," he said. "In addition they were hopeful that having a preschool facility in our district would enable parents to start their children in our district ... and then keep them [there]."

If Mosher gets the go ahead to move in, she won't have to worry about getting a permit because the facility doesn't require one.

The only rub is that the other person applying for the space is none other than Robin Renshaw of Mad River Montessori. The irony that two qualified preschools have to compete for the same space, one with a waiting list a mile long and an obvious need to expand, and the other facing imminent eviction, is a case in point. Neither Mosher nor Renshaw wish to vie with each other in order to provide parents with preschool slots, but because of a clear lack of available resources, they've been forced into just that situation.

The hope is that when and if the county's general plan is modified, preschool teachers won't have to expend so much energy finding and permitting facilities. They'll be able to focus their efforts on the more valuable project of facilitating the growth and education of the county's children.

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